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Finding missing patients costs police £4.8m a year

New campaign aimed at people who leave EDs without telling staff


Message: PSNI Inspector Phil Robinson and Nursing Sister Tamar Boyle from Mater Emergency Department

Message: PSNI Inspector Phil Robinson and Nursing Sister Tamar Boyle from Mater Emergency Department

Message: PSNI Inspector Phil Robinson and Nursing Sister Tamar Boyle from Mater Emergency Department

Around 160 patients go missing from Emergency Departments in Northern Ireland every month, a startling figure which has prompted the police to launch a new campaign to raise awareness.

The PSNI has said that patients leaving EDs without notifying staff means they are treated as a missing person, costing police £4.8m per year.

SDLP health spokesperson Colin McGrath welcomed the initiative saying it will allow the money to be spent more constructively.

The idea behind the awareness campaign is to stop patients from leaving the ED without telling a member of staff. The PSNI and the Health & Social Care Board (HSCB) initiative will run across all emergency departments.

Currently, when an ED patient who is receiving treatment leaves without telling a staff member they can be reported as missing, if they are otherwise not contactable and there is ongoing concern for their wellbeing.

Each month, around 160 missing ED patients are reported to police; close to 2,000 annually.

Detective Chief Superintendent Anthony McNally said: “If we can reduce the number of missing person reports to PSNI from EDs this will have a significant number of societal benefits. ED staff will have more time to deal with other patients rather than spend time trying to find someone who isn’t actually missing.

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“It will mean the Police Service can prioritise dealing with other missing reports where someone is genuinely at risk of harm. It will also allow us to deal with other policing priorities.

“Financially, it’s estimated that searching for the 160 persons who go missing from EDS every month costs the Police Service £4.8m pounds per year.”

Paul Cavanagh, Director of Commissioning, Health and Social Care Board said: “Emergency departments are very busy places and we know people get frustrated if they experience long waits. However, it will help keep patients safe and save health care staff time if patients let them know they are choosing to leave before completing their treatment.”

Since the PSNI and Health and Social Care began working together on the issue, the number of ED patients reported missing to police has dropped by 17%.

Detective Chief Superintendent McNally said: “The vast majority of ED patients who are reported missing are found safe and well at home. They were not ‘missing’, they just didn’t tell the ED staff they were leaving.”

He added: “We want anyone attending ED to know that not only are they potentially putting their own safety at risk by not waiting for the treatment they may need, but they are also taking up valuable time of ED and police resources.

“That means other patients, and people who need police or medical assistance, may not be getting those services as quickly as they could.

“We hope this public awareness campaign will encourage ED patients receiving treatment to think twice before leaving the hospital without telling a staff member.

“My appeal to the public is, and to anyone attending ED for treatment, either by themselves or with a family member, if you are not discharged by ED staff, please do not leave without telling a member of staff.”

The latest figures from July-September 2021 show that in September, 18.3% of the 62,882 attendances at EDs were admitted to hospital.

During September, 6.6% of attendances left an ED before their treatment was complete.

Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital reported the highest percentage of ED attendances leaving before their treatment was complete (15.3%), whilst Antrim 3.6% reported the lowest.

Since April 2014, the percentage of ED attendances who had left before treatment ranged from 1.4% in April 2020 to 6.8% in July 2021.

South Down MLA Colin McGrath said that while there are occasions when vulnerable people attend Eds requiring assistance and go missing, the vast majority of people simply return home without telling anyone.

“Decreasing this number would allow police and health staff to focus on people who do need to be located so they can receive the medical attention they require. It would also save our police service nearly £5m a year which could be spent somewhere where it would do more good,” he explained.

“I understand that emergency departments are extremely busy places, we often hear stories of people waiting several hours for treatment, but given the health crisis we are experiencing our staff are under huge pressure and it's understandable that patients sometimes face a considerable wait.

"I’d urge anyone only to attend their local emergency department when absolutely necessary and make themselves aware of the help offered by their local GP practice and chemist.

“If you do attend an ED, get frustrated and decide to go home, take five minutes and tell staff, it will allow vital police and health resources to be diverted where they are really needed.”

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